Sam Hirschman, the youngest life master in the history of bridge, is in his bedroom at home in Southfield, Mich. The wallpaper is printed with images of Chewbacca, Luke and Han; Sam is reconstructing a metropolis on the top of his desk.
"It's Lego town," says Sam as he fiddles with one of the miniature police motorcycles before placing it in his tableau. "My sister destroyed it."
"I used to have Lego," the visitor says, seizing on the brightly colored plastic bits as a bridge across the generation gap between him and Sam. "But they were just bricks. They didn't have prefabricated trees and motorcycles."
"Oh, yeah, I saw some of those old Legos once," Sam says.
The reporter sighs and quietly says, "Yeah, Lego is great."
"Yeah, great," Sam says. "I've been building Lego forever."
Just how old is Sam? Twelve years, five months and 25 days. A precise answer to that question has been significant to the Hirschmans ever since Sam began his quest to become the youngest life master in bridge about five years ago. On July 21, 1988, in Calgary, Sam won his 25th gold point in a tournament, giving him the number he needed to become a life master, as defined by the American Contract Bridge League. Sam was 11 years, nine months and five days old when he became the ACBL's 44,611th life master, which made Sam a month younger than Dougie Hsieh of New York City had been when he attained that lofty title in September 1981.
Sam's victory tour reached its climax in Calgary, but it had started in earnest weeks before when Sam and his father, Martin, played a series of tournaments throughout the Midwest and Canada, collecting points in a mad race against the calendar. In the house in Southfield, Jenny, Sam's eight-year-old sister, says, "And me, my [other] brother and mother had to stay here."
But, Jenny, life on the bridge circuit isn't all that it's cracked up to be. The endless miles of interstates; the ice-cold Java; the insolent roadies; the unforgiving groupies, who are always expecting you to perform at your best.
Sam, though, has had more than half his life to get used to the rigors of bridge. He was about six when he was first able to hold the 13 cards of a bridge hand in one of his own small hands. He had learned the game three years earlier. Why bridge? "I had nothing else to do; I had a lot of free time," he says, referring to the year when he was three. Sam, now a seventh-grader at Roeper City and Day School, has bridge in his blood. He was taught the game by his father, an attorney. Both his father and his mother, Marcy Abramson, a copy editor at the Detroit Free Press, are life masters. Martin wasn't about to rush Sam into big-time bridge, however. "I waited until he wouldn't embarrass himself," he says. Or embarrass Martin, for that matter, who was Sam's partner on most of the tour. In fact, Martin has been involved in most of the points that Sam has won.
Sam earned his first fraction of a point at a club game in a Southfield tournament in the fall of 1984. He has won five sectional championships and has tied one since but is still looking for his first regional or national title. And though his record as the youngest life master seems safe for now, there is another Hirschman waiting in the wings. Not Jenny, who knows it's too late for her ("I don't like card games," she says), but Danny, 4, who has been learning bridge using card holders. "I'll break the record, then I'll be the youngest life master," says Danny, who would throw down the gauntlet if it weren't clipped to the sleeve of his snowsuit.
Undaunted by this fraternal challenge, Sam continues to work on his Lego town. He has time for one more question. So, what do you want to be when you grow up, Sam? "Either an actor, an archaeologist or an architect," he says. As long as it begins with A? asks the wise-guy vistor.
Sam says, "No, I used to want to be an astronaut."